Sitting at the lunch counter with Mase I twirled a straw wrapper between my fingertips and tried not to meet his eyes. “So, I, uh, so I… I relapsed.” He was the first I told in person. The weight of it on my shoulders was released, then quickly replaced as tears came to my eyes and shame moved in. It’d been 36 hours since I sat in an old friend’s apartment with a bottle of bourbon, but I was still having trouble believing it happened.
He didn’t ask me why. He knew why I drank after over three years of sobriety. The only reason anyone ever relapses, I couldn’t find a reason why it mattered if I stayed sober anymore. I couldn’t find it and I didn’t go looking. I didn’t make phone calls. I didn’t go to a meeting. I just gave up and I drank. Another split-second decision that I’d have to pay for.
I didn’t keep drinking. I went to a meeting as soon as I could. I earned my 24 hour chip and then sat in my car sobbing. Not for the things I’d lost, but for the things I am. For the places I keep coming back to. For the selfish, self-serving, and stupid things I find myself doing over and over again. For my carelessness. For my apathy. For my lack of patience. For my passion and stubbornness. For my hurtfulness. For how pointless and hopeless this all feels. For all the things sorrys and sobbing won’t change.
Yet I continue forward. Despite my current inability to see why. Though I feel I don’t deserve it and it doesn’t matter anyway. I climb back up and I put one foot in front of the other and I go looking.
Go looking for something–for anything–that makes this feel a little more manageable. That reminds me I am someone worthy of love and compassion and forgiveness. Which proves I can change and grow. Something that will tell me it doesn’t always come back to this. That I can keep looking. That I will find the reasons and learn to keep them close.
Three years ago to the date, I was living sugar-free. Actually, I was consuming no more than ten grams of sugar per serving. Unless you count naturally occurring sugars, like those found in fruit, which I did not. I gave up all sweeteners, including artificial ones, so no diet sodas and nothing in my coffee. I definitely gave up daily dessert and near daily sugar binges.
What started out as Sugar-Free January got a little easier and continued into February until a few bites of rice krispie treat on a family trip started a slow but undeniable unraveling. It wasn’t long before all the wheels came off the dessert cart.
Sugar is a real slippery slope for me. I gave up drinking completely over four-and-a-half years ago and tore open a bag of Starburst in one fluid motion. Sugar didn’t make not drinking easy exactly, but it provided a little cushion. Sugar–cookies and candy in particular–provided immediate distraction from stress and possibly some emotional boost, though I never felt better after a binge. So why do I consume it so compulsively?
It’s no secret that sugar is highly addictive. Some claim sugar is eight times more addictive than cocaine. Wow, no wonder I have trouble quitting Oreos.
And what happens when I do give up sugar for any length of time? Oh, it’s not pretty. People stop loving me pretty soon after. The sun dims and clouds roll in from the west and I realize what’s the point? There’s an unhealthy side of agitation.
After about a month of this, the sense of power and control (the high?) I get from eating right mostly replaces this, but I still miss that emotional cushion. Not that eating whatever I want makes me feel very good about myself.
This brings me to moderation. Yes, please, I’ll have some of that. What I really want is to have my cake, but make it a small piece and hold the ice cream. And I only want it on birthdays, plus maybe a handful of times a year where cake is appropriate, like Bob’s last day or Polly’s baby shower but not Monday through Sunday.
People I know who successfully kicked the sugar demon have a different tale to tell. There is no such thing as moderation with sugar, they warn. Addiction is addiction, they tell me. I think they’re probably right and look for powdered sugar at the corner of their mouths. They seem pretty normal, well-adjusted, not curled into a fetal position.
So no more ice cream, you say? Like forever? Why can I commit to a lifelong with no booze but the thought of no ice cream makes me melt like a soft serve cone in July? Is it the more addictive thing or is it just that I don’t have much more left to give up? Don’t I get to keep a couple good vices for the hard times, parting gifts for my sobriety?
While there are many similarities between how I drank and how I eat–obsessively, secretively, shame-filled–sugar is no booze. I can eat a pint of Häagen-Dazs and safely drive. A sugar binge might make me a little spacey, but it doesn’t affect motor skills or make me say terrible things I won’t remember later. It is, afterall, just dessert.
Since that Sugar-Free January three years ago, I’ve had a couple more semi-successful quits. I say semi because I’m still eating sugar, overeating it if I’m honest. My weight is about the same now, though it was lower two years ago.
I think I have healthier eating habits now. I strive to eat more greens and protein in hopes I’ll feel satisfied enough not to want to binge on sugar. This occasionally even works, though not as often as I’d like. I also eat better because good food tastes good. I never noticed this before I did my first sugar-quit.
Last month I came this close to declaring another Sugar-Free January. Then I read this post and it hit me. I have never been at a weight where I’m like “okay, perfect” and I’ve always felt anxious about how much I exercised and what I ate. Even when I weighed ten pounds less and ran almost every day, I still thought my ass was too big. I have never been enough.
So I’m taking a break from expectations this month. This week I’ve eaten a cupcake every day, not as some sort of obscene experiment but because my daughters and I made some after school and work on Monday. It was a bad day, a very bad day you see, and I picked the one thing I knew would rouse us all: sugar.
We stirred and mixed and poured and baked and frosted, mouths watering all the way into the first few delicious bites. We laughed and talked and everything became a little sweeter. Sugar saved the day again, it seemed, but really I know it was the conversation and connection. Next time I’ll try it with a nice brussel sprout casserole.
Kristen lives in the northeast US and writes about important life stuff and assorted nonsense at Bye-Bye Beer. She has also written about recovery for After Party Magazine and The Fix.
Some things are true only because you believe them to be. Some things are true whether you want to believe them or not. One of my truths is that I’m an addict. It doesn’t matter what the substance is, if it has the potential for abuse, I will abuse it. I try to tell myself it’s just booze. That since I’ve been sober for so long I’m in the clear, but it’s never just been booze.
It’s obvious some places. Of course I can’t have just a little bit of cocaine. But it gets fuzzier and fuzzier the more socially acceptable the drug is. Prescribed anti-anxiety medications that are known to be habit-forming are out. Anytime my psychiatrist wants to change my medication I have to ask if any of them have known potential for abuse. I can’t have just a cup of coffee, because soon I’ll be drinking coffee all day, pushing my anxiety through the roof while my sleep bottoms out. Unless I want to smoke a pack a day again, I can never take a drag from a cigarette. I can’t even smoke pot without it quickly consuming my whole day. And forget about sugar. There is no such thing as moderation when it comes to substances with me. It’s an off/on switch.
I guess that’s just another personality trait I need to learn to deal with. But the first step to dealing with it is probably recognizing that it’s a personality trait and not a character flaw. That it does not mean I am fundamentally broken or there is something wrong with me. Moderation is just a thing I can’t do and that’s okay.
That’s why they make you say you’re powerless in AA, I guess. I never went to AA precisely because I hated that part. I didn’t want to powerless, I wanted to be powerful. Vibrant. I wanted to feel like I could do anything. Not powerless. Powerless feels so small and weak. But maybe it doesn’t have to be. Maybe it can be liberating.
Maybe by admitting I am powerless over addiction I can stop trying to be something I’m not. I can stop testing the waters of substance abuse and finally walk away.